Inequalities and PGR Wellbeing

  • Past Events

We ran an online session on June 6th 2024 exploring what is and is not yet known about PGR wellbeing, and shared some emergent reflections from primary research about disparities in doctoral/​PGR wellbeing.

The session, which was held under the Chatham House Rule, was hosted by three scholars from the University of Portsmouth: Dr Charlotte Morris, Dr Rosa Marvell and Thirsha de Silva. It opened with some breakout groups and initial questions to get discussion flowing, which were as follows: 

  • What barriers might different PGR students face, and how might this impact their wellbeing?
  • As practitioners, researchers or as a sector how could we disrupt some of these challenges?
  • Do you have any examples of good/​inclusive practice?

Following the breakout discussions, doctoral candidate Thirsha de Silva kicked off with an overview of the literature concerning PGR mental health. She looked at some of the factors that impact mental health, including academic culture, supervisory relationships, feelings of isolation and gender (particularly women carrying responsibilities for care and therefore struggling with work/​life balance). PGRs are the great forgotten” she remarked, adding that what she meant by that was forgotten by university policies and frameworks.

Dr Charlotte Morris followed with a presentation that drew on insights from four different projects conducted between 2007 and 2020. She noted that, in terms of inequalities, there are intersections with gender, class, ethnicity etc. 

One of my key themes is time poverty – which is something that comes through strongly in the research,” she said. Along with the blurring between home and work, there isn’t much time for leisure or self-care. This can lead to exhaustion and burnout.” Another theme under examination was guilt. Dr Morris pointed out that it sometimes helped candidates to remind them that it’s OK to have thinking time and space” and that sometimes lowering standards within the home and learning to ask for help” can ease the pressure.

Following on from Dr Morris, Dr Rosa Marvell looked at the relationship between social class and wellbeing and the initial journey into PGR – all of which was the subject of her own PhD. She looked at a subset of her data which focussed on PGRs that identified as working class and talked about how they tended to put the PhD on a pedestal”, meaning that a lot was at stake for them psychologically.

Academics need to be reflective and careful about what a PhD is – how honest are we about the challenges?” she asked, adding that the participants who had encountered more social inequalities tended to express more doubt and imposter syndrome. 

Dr Marvell passed back to Thirsha de Silva for a final look at the gaps in the literature before the session was opened up for questions and discussion. One participant said: That idea of developing resilience within PGRs through the difficulty of the study experience is, to me, one of the biggest cultural problems about programme design.” Another person agreed, saying they also disliked the term resilience’ which they felt contributed to a toxic narrative around doctoral study: I think we should have better mechanisms to support students and help them to become self-reliant researchers” they added.